Critical Context

In Watermelon Sugar was one of three early works—the others were A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964) and Trout Fishing in America (1967)—which established Brautigan as one of the most popular writers of the 1960’s. His books were particularly popular on college campuses; photographs of the author showed a rangy figure with shoulder-length hair, granny glasses, and a walrus mustache—the quintessential San Francisco writer. At the same time, he was recognized by some critics as a writer whose works could stand on their own merit; Guy Davenport, reviewing Brautigan’s early novels in The Hudson Review, described him as “one of the most gifted innovators in our literature.”

In the decade and a half between the appearance of In Watermelon Sugar and his death by suicide in 1984, Brautigan published many more books, but none of them enjoyed the success of his early works. His identification with the counterculture worked against him; from the beginning, many hostile critics had rejected his work as cute and ephemeral, and it became fashionable to dismiss him as a phenomenon of the 1960’s, no longer of interest.

In time, Richard Brautigan will find a permanent place in American literature. Whatever the vicissitudes of critical opinion (his later works are only beginning to receive an objective critical reading), it is certain that In Watermelon Sugar will be numbered among the lasting works of the 1960’s—a book which captures as few others do the spirit of that extraordinary moment in American history.